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A New Traditional Church for Our Savior Parish in Los Angeles

Our Savior Parish in Los Angeles is a new 6,000-sq.ft. chapel that seats 300 and a 14,000-sq.ft. two-story student center built around an open courtyard.


Our Savior Parish and USC Caruso Catholic Center, Los Angeles, CA

Design Architect

Elkus Manfredi Architects, Boston, MA; David Manfredi, FAIA, LEED AP,
principal; Warren Van Wees, LEED AP, project architect

Executive Architect

Perkowitz & Ruth Architects, Long Beach, CA; Brad Williams, AIA,
associate principal/COO

General Contractor

MATT Construction Co., Santa Fe Springs, CA; Sam Ragsdale, LEED AP, project manager; Bart Shively,
VP/project executive

Landscape Architect

EPT Design, Pasadena, CA Leed Gold

By Martha McDonald

When Father Lawrence Seyer came to Our Savior Parish in Los Angeles eight years ago, the church and offices occupied a nondescript 10,000-sq.ft. 1958 building. “It didn’t even look like a church,” he says. “I would have people call me from the parking lot and say, ‘My GPS says I am here, but I can’t see the church.’” At that time, plans were on the drawing board for a new facility.

Then along came Rick Caruso, a major donor, and he felt that the church should look like a church and that it should be traditional in design. Elkus Manfredi Architects of Boston, MA, was brought in to work with Perkowitz & Ruth of Long Beach, CA, the executive architects, and the new Our Savior Parish and USC (University of Southern California) Caruso Catholic Center was born.

The end result is a new 6,000-sq.ft. chapel that seats 300 and a 14,000-sq.ft. two-story student center building, both built in traditional styles around an 7,000-sq.ft. open courtyard. The 10-year process started in 2002 and was completed in 2012.

“The charge was to build not only the church but also the Catholic Center and to make a place with outdoor gathering space,” says David Manfredi, principal, Elkus Manfredi. “We were commissioned to design a place that was a destination for students and also a significant place of worship. While those are complementary goals, they are not actually the same. So we started to think about a campus plan made up of separate buildings around a common space. Originally, it had been one building, but we wanted the church and the Catholic Center to be distinct,” says Manfredi. “This helped us break down the scale and create an enclave of buildings. The church is Romanesque Revival style, and the Catholic Center is Italian Renaissance.

“The goal was to create the opportunity for all kinds of both personal and congregational worship in a building that is unabashedly traditional, timeless in its architecture,” states Manfredi. He notes that during the ‘20s and ‘30s, a number of important buildings, including Mudd Hall with its bell tower and colonnade, were built on campus using a combination of limestone and brick. “That Italian Renaissance and Romanesque Revival style became the inspiration for our design,” Manfredi explains, adding that the brick at USC is a “rosy red that we don’t see in New England, but it is so much a part of the character of USC.”

He is quick to add that while the buildings are true to those traditions, certain changes and improvements were made that could have only been done in recent times. For example, because the stone is not load bearing, the openings could be larger to allow more daylight. “We were accepting of all of the things that technology can do, but the language is very much traditional,” Manfredi points out.

“Our research was extensive and detailed as we translated the historic precedents to modern day contractors,” adds Warren Van Wees, project architect, Elkus Manfredi. “We focused on precedent, to get visually inspiring material and make it expressive for a large audience. This was true for the Romanesque church and for the Catholic Center as well.”

“We wanted a church that looked like a church,” agrees Father Lawrence.

 “The buildings that the students like most are the historic buildings, like Mudd Hall.”

The general contractor, MATT Construction, was heavily involved in the project, notes Sam Ragsdale, project manager. He says that every decision was carefully weighed. For example, the selection of Italian travertine for the exterior of the chapel was quite a process. It involved the creation of several sample mockups of various stone types (Texas limestone, Jerusalem stone, Wisconsin limestone and Colorado sandstone) made by the Carnevale & Lohr Stonemasons of Bell Gardens, CA. Ultimately, he explains, “we went with a combination of split face travertine for the field areas and a honed version for the corners, for a smooth finish. A complementary precast trim at windows, doors, the water-table areas, columns and dentils made the ‘carved’ portions of the façade more economical and were produced using dozens of rubber and plaster molds.”

Brad Williams, associate principal/COO, Perkowitz & Ruth, echoes that sentiment. “Getting just the right travertine color on the exterior of the church was a very interesting process. We considered many different types of stone. We went to the quarry to select the color range that we wanted and MATT Construction hired an onsite inspector to ensure we got just the right color from the fabricator in Italy.”

A group of donors went to Italy and had an audience with Pope Benedict as he blessed the cornerstone of the building. “It is set in the façade, next to the door, on the right,” says Ragsdale.

“Every firm, consultant, craftsman, artist…really every single person involved in this project paid great attention to detail,” Williams adds. “Because the project is traditional as well as ecclesiastical, every detail was painstaking in its execution. This was not a typical project for our firm and, once we got involved, we really stepped up our level of care and detail. The team went to great pains to insure that people would think twice about the age of the building.”

“Many people who have seen the completed building can’t believe it was newly constructed,” says Ragsdale. “It looks like it’s been there for a hundred years. Especially in the context of the historic USC buildings nearby.”

The chapel is a concrete block and steel structure with an Italian travertine and precast veneer exterior. It features a 75-ft. bell tower, reminiscent of Mudd Hall, topped with a custom-designed rooftop cross with a gold-leaf finish. The cross was gold leafed by Los Angeles artist Victor Raphael. This tower houses cellphone equipment at the second, third and fourth levels, with antennas hidden inside the fifth-floor columns. An ornate dome in the tower incorporates a hidden trap door to provide access to the cellular equipment.

The Redland Clay tile roof, installed by Letner Roofing & Sheetmetal of Orange, CA, features copper downspouts and gutters with custom decorative copper leader boxes decorated with a Roman cross on the church and a Trojan soldier’s helmet on the student center.

Eight large (12 ft. x 24 ft. tall) stained-glass windows were designed and built by The Judson Studios of Los Angeles, CA, to bring beauty and daylight into the chapel. Each represents one of the eight beatitudes and was individually gifted. “The upper half represents a New Testament story and the lower half is from the Old Testament,” Ragsdale explains. “The donor name is in the corner.” In an interesting twist, it turns out that the great, great, great grandfather of the current owner of The Judson Studios was the first dean of the School of Fine Art at USC.

Custom exterior aluminum window frames manufactured by J. Sussman, Inc., of Jamaica, NY, provide two glazing channels. The exterior channel holds insulated glass for weather and UV resistance, and a second, smaller glazing channel holds the stained-glass window on the interior.

Behind the altar are nine smaller windows, featuring the Doctors (scholar saints) of the church such as Thomas Aquinas. These were also designed and fabricated by The Judson Studios. Another window behind the baptismal font represents the first four days of creation and was designed and created by artist and former Dean of the Roski School of Fine Arts at USC, Ruth Weisberg.

Also highlighting the sanctuary is a gold-leaf dome altar, ambo and reredos by Carnevale & Lohr, made of Carrara marble. The altar and ambo are inlaid with book-match honey-gold onyx. Carnevale & Lohr also created the stone steps, elevated predella, tabernacle platform, baptismal font and floor. Eleven different artists contributed to the church, including Jason Arkles who hand-carved the Italian Carrara marble tympanum installed above the entry doors of the church. He also designed wood statues of Mary and Joseph for the chapel. The doors themselves are milled from South African mahogany. The cast bronze door pull was custom designed for the chapel.

The interior of the chapel is lined with 10-ft.-tall South African mahogany custom wood wainscot, and features niches for the 14 Stations of the Cross done as oil paintings by Pasadena artist, Peter Adams. Decorative laminated wood Douglas fir trusses, arches and hammer beams and steel tension rods support the roof and upper exterior walls. Milled in northern California, these beams weigh approximately 12 tons each. They were assembled inside the church on saw horses due to the tight site conditions and were hoisted onto the walls with a crane over a two-week period. The wood plank ceilings coordinate with the wood paneling throughout and conceal acoustical insulation.

While a stone church of this style would normally also be stone on the interior, the designers wanted a warm feeling.

 “Typically, Romanesque churches were stone on the inside and they could be cold places,” says Manfredi. “We wanted a very warm place with warm materials. There is a lot of wood and the stained-glass windows bring in a lot of color and light. The openings are very big so there is a lot of light and it changes during the day. We designed it to be a warm and inviting place, truly a refuge.” Wavell-Huber Custom Wood Products of North Salt Lake, UT, provided the millwork for the project.

Father Lawrence notes that while the structure is traditional, the students wanted a more contemporary American liturgy, so curved pews were installed to bring people closer to the altar. Also, the stained-glass windows are lower than they would have been in a traditional church. They are about 5 ft. from the floor, to bring in more light. “Los Angeles is known as the city of light, so we wanted to take advantage of that,” he adds.

One of the most outstanding features of the interior of the church is the 700-lb., 7-ft. tall bronze crucifix, sculpted by Los Angeles artist, Christopher Slatoff. “This was one of the biggest challenges from a schedule and structural design point of view,” says Ragsdale. “We needed to go ahead and build the interior and plan for the crucifix, so we had a place-holder for it. Ultimately, we came up with a bolted structure that hangs from the rafters. It is 20 ft. above the altar.”

“It took quite a while to figure out how to hang the crucifix,” adds Williams. “It looks simple, but the man hours that went into figuring that out were enormous.”

The altar and the ambo are made of white Carrara marble with honey-gold onyx inlays. Just added to the chapel are tapestries of the four apostles, designed by artist John Nava and woven in Belgium. While the interior has a lot of woodwork, the floor is stone, with under-floor radiant heating. “This keeps the stone floor comfortable,” says Ragsdale.

Meanwhile, the builders were working on the student center at the same time. The exterior is made of brick (the rosy red USC brick, supplied by Pacific Clay, Lake Elsinore, CA) and precast concrete (supplied by Victorian Designs, Burbank, CA) with blended terra-cotta roofing (from Redland Clay). Other features include two Juliet balconies and a columned loggia that connects to the church and creates a large second-floor balcony.

The first floor has a large hall lined with pairs of French doors that open to the loggia and a full-service kitchen, offices and a student lounge. On the second floor, the library and classroom spaces feature mahogany millwork similar to the church.

All of the mechanical equipment for both the church and the student center is located in the student center. Ragsdale notes that it was a challenge to coordinate the installation of the ductwork, which moves the air from the air handlers on the roof of the student center down through the student center, then underground and across to the church and branching out to diffusers located below the stained-glass windows in the church. The air enters through sheet aluminum decorative grilles that are water-jet cut in a traditional pattern and coated to match the bronze in the church.

The HVAC system in the chapel was adjusted for the traditional building style, notes Williams. “Normally one would simply place diffusers in the ceiling for distribution of cold air,” he says. “But that would be completely out of place in an historic church. So we created a system of displacement ventilation whereby air pours into the space through the grilles below the stained-glass windows. The displacement grilles in the millwork paneling actually became a very interesting design feature.”

The designers worked to achieve a LEED Gold rating and to build structures that use 24% less energy than state code requirements. Plumbing fixtures save more than 38% of the annual water consumption, and low-emitting materials were used throughout. Water consumption was also reduced in the courtyard by 65% because of the landscape and irrigation design. Low-mercury lamps and Energy Star appliances and equipment also contributed to the LEED rating.

“This is the first LEED Gold church in the Los Angeles archdiocese,” says Ragsdale. 

The sustainability consultant was Green Dinosaur, Culver City, CA, and the landscape architect was EPT Design, Pasadena, CA.

While Rick Caruso was the lead donor, fund raising continued throughout construction and was supported by dozens of Catholic USC alumni, foundations and local philanthropists. “The parish knew that money would come in once people saw construction underway,” Ragsdale explains. “We established a series of scope deferrals that could be added back into the project as money was raised.”

All in all, the $36-million project, including a $6 million endowment, ($17.5-million construction cost) has been a tremendous success. It was completed in August of 2012 and consecrated on December 9, 2012. Manfredi notes that all of the artists who worked on the project came for the dedication, where they met each other for the first time.

“This project was a true labor of love for everyone involved,” Williams states. “Everyone put their heart and soul into it, and it really shows.”

“This a very special place,” says Manfredi, “with a benefactor in Rick Caruso who was committed to doing it absolutely right, and in a memorable way.”

The new buildings and courtyard serve a large Catholic community from both the university and the city. “About one-third of the 30,000 graduate and undergraduate students at USC are Catholic,” says Ragsdale, who is also a member of the parish. “And it also draws people from outside the university.”

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